Maps and spatial information technologies (Geographical Information Systems) in health and environment decision-making

Directory of resources

GEO-Global Environmental Outlook: Data Portal

The authoritative source for data sets used by UNEP and its partners in the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report and other integrated environment assessments. Its online database holds more than 450 variables as national, subregional, regional and global statistics or as geospatial data sets (maps), covering themes like Freshwater, Population, Forests, Emissions, Climate, Disasters, Health and GDP. Display data as maps, graphs, data tables, or download the data in different formats.

Commonly-used environmental spatial information relevant to health


These maps could be used to detect radiation sources and potential for seismic activity. They can therefore be useful in planning and assessment in the health sector, particularly in the location of vulnerable population groups and the calculation of risks.
Common sources: United States Geological Survey; national departments of defence; national geological surveys.


Contour maps or digital elevation models can be used to calculate steepness of slope and resultant vulnerability to flooding, landslides and mudslides, erosion, and dust pollution. This is relevant for determining risk and planning emergency services.
Common sources: Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) Digital Chart of the World; local authorities; national departments of defence; national departments of surveys and mapping.


These maps can be useful in locating areas of food insecurity or malnutrition as a result of low agricultural potential or mineral deficiency, but are perhaps more useful when used in models in combination with other variables such as rainfall and hours of sunshine.
Common sources: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); national departments of agriculture. Land cover and use

Land cover and use

These maps are usually informative when used in modelling environmental change and impacts for human health. Land cover change could signify an increase in agricultural activity resulting in greater food security, or it could signify changes in climate and spread of new diseases.
Common sources: ESRI Digital Chart of the World; FAO; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); UNEP; World Resources Institute; national departments of agriculture, forestry, environment; national departments of defence.


These maps are usually based on forest cover or protected areas, but specific species or habitat atlases exist. These can be useful as indicators of environmental change – for example, a worldwide decline in amphibian species is thought to signify atmospheric or climatic changes such as increased pollution. These indicators may also be relevant to human health.
Common sources: UNEP; UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC); World Conservation Union (IUCN); World Resources Institute; national departments of environment.

Water resources

Maps of both surface and groundwater resources exist; in some cases water quality is indicated. These maps can be useful in planning water supply and sanitation schemes related to health planning.
Common sources: Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA); NOAA; State of the Rivers Report (South Africa); UNEP; UNEP Global Programme of Assessment; World Meteorological Organization (WMO); World Resources Institute; national departments of water; national rivers authorities; pollution control authorities; weather bureaux and meteorological offices.

Air quality

Most commonly monitored are emissions of sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides, and smoke, ambient concentrations of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, lead, and ozone. These are useful for health assessment and planning with relation to respiratory diseases, cancers, and stunting in children.
Common sources: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); UNEP and other United Nations agencies; World Bank; World Resources Institute; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international watchdog organizations (such as the WorldWatch Institute); national pollution control authorities.

Environmental laws and management

Although not commonly presented in a spatial format, a global mapping project has been initiated by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University to use remotely-sensed data relating to environmental treaties – for example, carbon sequestration, land cover change, and land degradation.
Available at: Settlements and infrastructure

Although not strictly environmental, these types of maps are useful in predicting or depicting environmental change as a result of human activity, and can also be useful in health planning.
Common sources: local authorities; national departments of surveys and mapping.


Maps of indicators of well-being, ranging from income per capita to nutritional status, to educational level or life expectancy, can be extremely useful in combination with maps of environmental conditions. They are most commonly used by planning and development agencies, to target specific areas with specific needs. A classic example is provided by a case-study by Friends of the Earth UK, which showed that the residents downwind of industrial sites in the United Kingdom had significantly lower income levels than the residents upwind of these sites.
Available at:
Common sources:; CIESIN; FAO; Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems (FIVIMS); World Bank; World Resources Institute.